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Cheering bigotry in the House

By Andrew Loh

When a hate speech is delivered in the august chambers of Parliament, you know something is not quite right.

Yet it did happen. In Singapore. In 2007, during the debate on the issue of Section 377A of the Penal Code. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong referred to that debate recently. So did justice Quentin Loh. Let’s revisit that debate.

Law professor Thio Li Ann, then a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP), made an admittedly passionate speech against repealing that section in our law books. Unfortunately, Thio did so by also taking “tasteless digs at homosexual sex”, as academic Dr Cherian George put it.

“Thio also did a disservice to the majority of God-fearing Singaporeans – we who would like to believe that our faiths are ultimately about compassion, not the hateful, hurtful cheap shots that Thio felt compelled to deliver on our behalf,” Dr George said. “How I wished a theology professor or other religious scholar would have stepped into the debate at that point, to show how it might be possible to express a faith-based objection to homosexuality – minus the hate speech.”

What disturbed this writer was not the hate-filled content of Prof Thio’s speech, vulgar and reprehensible as it was.

What was more disconcerting was how her comparison of “homosexual anal sex to ‘shoving a straw up your nose to drink’ was greeted with thunderous applause in Parliament.”

A letter to the Straits Times said, “She peppered her arguments with wit, drawing applause from the viewing gallery and getting many MPs thumping their seats.”

The reaction of the MPs, more than that of the public in the public gallery, must give pause to Singaporeans who would like to see civility and rational discussion and consideration of issues in the highest law-making institution in the land.

One wonders if our MPs are not homophobes – for how could one bring oneself to applaud such a speech?

Be that as it may, it sheds light on the possible (real) reason behind the government’s adamant insistence on retaining a law which many have so eloquently debunked as unconstitutional, nonsensical and a mockery of our legal system. Indeed, the government itself finds the act of consensual sex between two adult males to be harmless that it even promises not to enforce the law.

Which brings one to this – if one were to consider the main arguments of the government for retention of s377A, one is hard-pressed to find any logic behind any of the main reasons.

The main arguments can be distilled to one – that “society” is not ready to move on the matter. This has been the government’s position, reiterated in recent times by various ministers as well.

“I’m not ready to move, and I don’t think a major section of society is ready to move,” then Education Minister Lui Tuck Yew said in 2007.

“If the majority of our population is against homosexuality, then it’s not for the Government to say we are going to force something against the wishes of the people,” Law Minister K Shanmugam was reported to have said in 2009.

“Singapore society is not likely to come to a conclusion on gay rights, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong signalled yesterday that the status quo will remain,” the TODAY newspaper reported in January 2013.

“Why is that law on the books? Because it’s always been there and I think we just leave it,” PM Lee said.

PM Lee’s argument is a ridiculous one. It implies that we should or could never ever remove any laws because all the laws currently in the books would have “always been there” too. But one would not want to be facetious, like advocating, effectively, governance by populism – which is what the ministers are implying, in fact. It is the very thing which the ruling People’s Action Party has always abhorred. Shall we then rule or govern by referendum, with government departments replaced by survey committees?

But let’s look at this oft-repeated reason offered as argument to retain the anti-homosexual law.

What is this “society” which is often cited? Who makes up this “society”? How do we determine what this “society” thinks?

Of course, no answers to these questions have been given by those who cite “society” as their reason for not moving on s377A. It is a rather mysterious entity invoked to support one’s desires at any one time – “society” somehow seemed ready to accept gambling and casinos, abortion, and even anal and oral sex between heterosexual couples, but this same “society” is invoked again to justify retaining an archaic, anachronistic law – and to criminalise the same anal sex between two homosexual male. [Incidentally, “society” also seems to accept lesbianism.]

The bottom line to all the arguments is that the Penal Code is a set of law which our society lives by, and one which we adhere to, to protect society and to punish those who flout the rules in it.

In short, it is to deal with criminal activities which “must entail harm to others that is recognisable and tangible. In other words, if an act does not harm others, then it should not be a crime,” as then-NMP Siew Kum Hong said, in 2007.

NUS Law Professor Michael Hor wrote in that same year,

“The Government has been strangely silent about the harm that section 377A is intended to prevent. Indeed, consistent statements over a number of years from the highest officials of the land lead any reasonable observer to think that the Government no longer believes, if indeed it did before, that the sort of activity contemplated by section 377A is harmful at all. If corroboration were required, it lies in the repeated assurances of the Government that section 377A will not be enforced – apparently because there is no harm to be prevented, no offender to be rehabilitated, no potential offender to be deterred, and no victim to be satisfied.”

So, what is it that we are criminalising? Thin air?

As for “society” not being ready to move on repeal, MP Hri Kumar said it well in Parliament in 2007:

“Further, while society may frown on homosexuality, that, by itself, does not justify criminalising it. A number of speakers, at least one of them, have highlighted the surveys in the Straits Times where the public was polled and 70% were said to frown on homosexuality. I can understand that. Seventy per cent frowned on it. But how many actually said that they were willing to criminalise it? That question was not even asked, and that is a serious question because that is the issue we face today.”

In February, PM Lee said we should “agree to disagree on gay rights.” If only it were a trivial matter of no consequence, like, let’s agree to disagree that durians are fragrant.

The fact that we had an NMP in Parliament spewing hate speech and fellow MPs reacting with “thunderous applause” and “thumping their seats” in approval tells you that agreeing to disagree is the least of it.

What we should be more concerned with is the insidious homophobia which may already have wormed its way into the House among some of our Members of Parliament. For there is nothing else to call it, given that all other arguments and defence to criminalise the sexual activity of two consenting male adults make no sense whatsoever. Indeed, the government itself admits as much by its pledge of non-enforcement.

For no one who believes in the words and beliefs enshrined in our Pledge would find it conscionable to applaud bigotry, especially when one is also a representative of the people – the very people, or “society”, which one also cites to, in fact, justify that bigotry.

The defence of retaining section 377A thus has nothing to do with whether society is ready to set the law aside. If that were the reason, the issue would and could be easily settled with a national referendum. Nah, “society” is a red herring, a smokescreen, a passing-of-the-buck even, if you will. The real reason has, instead, everything to do with the personal attitudes of our individual MPs toward gay people and the gay community.

And how do we know what their attitudes are?

Just look at those who were cheering the bigotry expressed in Parliament in 2007.

That is what we should be concerned about more – that not a single MP spoke up against that kind of hate speech.